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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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MEALS. In the art. Food attention was confined to the various articles of diet supplied by the vegetable and animal kingdoms. It now remains to study the methods by which these were prepared for the table, the times at which, and the manner in which, they were served.

1 . Preparation of food . The preparation of the food of the household was the task of the women thereof, from the days of Sarah ( Genesis 18:6 ) to those of Martha. Only the houses of royalty and the great nobles had apartments specially adapted for use as kitchens, with professional cooks , male ( 1 Samuel 9:23 ) and female ( 1 Samuel 8:13 ). At the chief sanctuaries, also, there must have been some provision for the cooking of the sacrificial meals ( 1 Samuel 2:13 ff.), although Ezekiel ( Ezekiel 46:24 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) is the first to mention ‘ boiling-houses ’ in this connexion (cf. Exodus 29:31 , Leviticus 8:31 ).

The usual method of cooking and serving meat can have differed but little from that most commonly observed at the present day in Syria. The meat is cut into larger or smaller pieces (1 Samuel 2:13 , Ezekiel 24:3 ff.; cf. Micah’s telling metaphor Micah 3:8 ), and put into the cooking-pot with water. It is then left to stew, vegetables and rice being added. Such a stew with perhaps crushed wheat in place of rice was the ‘savoury meat’ which Rebekah prepared for her husband from ‘two kids of the goats’ ( Genesis 27:9 ). When meat was boiled in a larger quantity of water than was required for the more usual stew, the result was the broth of Judges 6:19 f., from which we learn that the meat and the broth might be served separately. The cooking-pots were of earthenware and bronze ( Leviticus 6:28 . For an account of cooking utensils generally, with references to illustrations, see House, § 9).

In addition to boiling, or, as in EV [Note: English Version.] more frequently, seething (‘sod,’ ‘sodden,’ Genesis 25:29 , Exodus 12:9 etc.; but Amer. RV [Note: Revised Version.] has ‘boil’ throughout), roasting was much in vogue, and is, indeed, the oldest of all methods of preparing meat. Originally the meat was simply laid upon hot stones from which the embers had been removed, as in the parallel case of the ‘cake baken on the coals’ ( 1 Kings 19:8 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). The fish of which the disciples partook by the Sea of Galilee was cooked on the charcoal itself. A more refined mode of roasting was by means of a spit of Iron or wood. In NT times the Passover lamb had always to be roasted in an oven, suspended by a spit of pomegranate laid across the mouth.

Eggs ( Job 6:5 , Luke 11:12 ), we read in the Mishna, might be cooked by being boiled in the shell, or broken and fried, or mixed with oil and fried in a saucepan.

As regards the important group of the cereals , wheat and barley ears were roasted on an iron plate or in a pan, producing the ‘ parched corn ’ (Amer. RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘parched grain’) of OT. A porridge of coarse wheat or barley meal has also been referred to under Food, § 2 . The seeds of the leguminous plants were mostly boiled ( Genesis 25:29; cf. 2 Kings 4:38 ). A ‘good savour’ ( 1E Esther 1:12 ) was imparted to the stew by the addition of other vegetables of a more pungent character, such as onions. In short, it may be affirmed that the Hebrew housewives were in no way behind their modern kinsfolk of the desert, of whom Doughty testifies that ‘the Arab housewives make savoury messes of any grain, seething it and putting thereto only a little salt and samn [clarified butter].’

The direction in which Hebrew, like most Eastern, cooking diverged most widely from that of our northern climate was in the more extensive use of olive oil , which served many of the purposes of butter and fat among ourselves. Not only was oil mixed with vegetables, but it was largely used in cooking fish and eggs (as we have just seen), and in the finer sorts of baking. The poor widow of Zarephath’s ‘little oil’ was not intended for her lamps, but to bake her ‘handful of meal’ withal ( 1 Kings 17:12 ). The flour was first mixed with oil, then shaped into cakes and afterwards baked in the oven ( Leviticus 2:4 ); or a species of thin flat cake might first be baked in the usual way and then smeared with oil. The latter are the ‘wafers anointed with oil’ of Exodus 29:2 etc. Honey and oil were also used together in the baking of sweet cakes ( Ezekiel 16:13; Ezekiel 16:19 ). In this connexion it is interesting to note that while Exodus 16:31 compares the taste of manna to that of ‘wafers made with honey,’ the parallel passage, Numbers 11:8 , compares it to ‘the taste of cakes baked with oil’ (RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ).

2. The two chief meals . Among the Hebrews, as among their contemporaries in classical lands, it was usual to have but two meals, properly so called, in the day. Before beginning the work of the day the farmer in the country and the artizan in the city might ‘break their fast’ ( John 21:12; John 21:15 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) by eating a morsel of bread the ‘morning morsel’ as it is called in the Talmud with some simple relish, such as a few olives; but this was in no sense a meal. Indeed, to ‘eat [a full meal] in the morning’ was a matter for grave reproach ( Ecclesiastes 10:16 ).

The first meal-time ( Ruth 2:14 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), speaking generally, was at an hour when the climate demanded a rest from strenuous exertion, namely, about noon; the second and more important meal of the two was taken a little before or after sunset, when the labourers had ‘come in from the field’ ( Luke 17:7 ). This was the ‘ supper time ’ of Luke 14:17 . The former, the ariston of the Greeks in EV [Note: English Version.] rendered dinner , Matthew 22:4 , also Luke 11:38 but RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] here breakfast was in most cases a very simple meal. ‘A servant plowing or keeping sheep’ or harvesting would make his midday meal of bread soaked in light wine with a handful of parched corn ( Ruth 2:14 ), or of ‘pottage and bread broken into a bowl’ (Bel 33), or of bread and boiled fish ( John 21:13 ). All the evidence, including that of Josephus, goes to show that the second or evening meal was the principal meal of the day.

3. Position at meals . Within the period covered by OT the posture of the Hebrews at meals, in so far as the men were concerned, was changed from sitting to reclining. In the earliest period of all, the Hebrews took their meals sitting, or more probably, squatting on the ground ( Genesis 37:25 etc.), like the Bedouin and fellahin of the present day, among whom squatting ‘with both knees downwards, and with the legs gathered tailor-fashion, alone is the approved fashion when at table’ ( PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1905, 124). The food was served in a large wooden bowl placed upon a mat of leather or plaited grass, round which the company gathered. The first advance on this primitive practice was to present the food on a wooden or other tray, set upon a low stand raised but a few inches from the ground. The next step was the introduction of seats, which would naturally follow upon the change from nomadic to agricultural life after the conquest of Canaan. Saul and his mess-mates sat upon ‘seats’ ( 1 Samuel 20:25 ), the precise form of which is not specified, as did Solomon and the high officials of his court ( 1 Kings 10:5 , where the queen of Sheba admires the ‘sitting,’ i.e . the seated company of his servants; cf. 1 Kings 13:20 etc.).||

With the growth of wealth and luxury under the monarchy, the Syrian custom of reclining at meals gradually gained ground. In Amos’ time it was still looked upon as an innovation peculiar to the wealthy nobles (Amos 3:12; Amos 6:4 ). Two centuries later, Ezekiel is familiar with ‘a stately bed’ or couch (as Esther 1:5 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) with ‘a table prepared before it’ ( Ezekiel 23:41 ). In the post-exilic period the custom must have taken firm root, for by the end of the 3rd cent. b.c. it was probably universal save among the very poor ( Jdt 12:15 , Tob 2:1 ). In NT, accordingly, whenever ‘ sitting at meat ’ is mentioned, we are to understand ‘reclining,’ as the margin of RV [Note: Revised Version.] everywhere reminds us. At table, that is to say, the men for women and children still sat reclined on couches with wooden frames, upholstered with mattresses and provided with cushions, on which they leaned the left elbow (see Sir 41:19 ), using only the right hand to eat with (see § 5 below).

4. From the Mishna we learn that in NT times the tables were chiefly of wood, and furnished with three or four feet. They were lower and smaller than with us. The couches or divans were as a rule capable of accommodating several people. In the houses of the great each guest at a banquet might have a couch and table for himself. The Greek custom was to assign two, the Roman three, guests to each couch. As each guest reclined on his left elbow, the person next on his right on the same couch could be said to ‘recline in the bosom’ of his fellow-guest. Such were the relative positions of John and Jesus at the Last Supper ( John 13:23 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ).

5 . Procedure at meals , etc. In our Lord’s day, as we learn from the Gospels, great importance was attached by the Jewish authorities to the ‘ washing of hands ’ before meals. This consisted of pouring water (which had been kept from possible defilement in large closed jars, the ‘waterpots of stone’ of John 2:6 ) over the hands and allowing it to run to the wrist (cf. Mark 7:3 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] and commentaries).

This washing over, the food was brought in by the women of the household (Mark 1:31 , Luke 10:40 ); in wealthy families by male slaves, the ‘ministers’ of 1 Kings 10:5 , ‘waiters’ of Jdt 13:1 , ‘servants’ of John 2:5; John 2:9 . At this stage grace was said. The date of the introduction of this custom is unknown, for 1 Samuel 9:13 is not a case in point. In NT the blessing before a meal has the repeated sanction of our Lord’s example ( Matthew 15:36; Matthew 26:25 , etc.; cf. Acts 27:35 for Paul).

As to what may be termed, with the Mishna, ‘the vessels for the service’ of the table, these naturally varied with the social position of the household, and more or less with the progress of the centuries. In early times earthenware vessels would be used, for which, as civilization advanced, bronze would be substituted, and even in special cases, silver and gold (see House, § 9). Bread, we know, was usually served in shallow wicker baskets ( Exodus 29:23 ). The main part of the meal in the homes of the people will have been served in one or more large bowls or basins , of earthenware or bronze, according to circumstances. Such was the ‘dish’ into which our Lord dipped the ‘sop’ ( Matthew 26:23 , Mark 14:20 ). A shallower dish is that rendered ‘charger’ in Matthew 14:8; Matthew 14:11 , and ‘platter,’ Luke 11:39 .

In the case of a typical dish of meat and vegetables, prepared as described above, those partaking of the meal helped themselves with the fingers of the right hand (Proverbs 19:24 = Proverbs 26:15 RV [Note: Revised Version.] , Matthew 26:23 ), knives and forks being, of course, unknown at table, while the more liquid parts were secured, as at the present day, by using pieces of thin wafer-like bread as improvised spoons, or simply by dipping a morsel of bread, the sop of John 13:26 , into the dish. It was customary, as this passage shows, for the head of the family to hand pieces of food to various members; these are the portions of 1 Samuel 1:4 .

6. In the event of a Jew of some position resolving to entertain his friends at dinner, it was usual to send the invitations by his servants ( Matthew 22:3 ), and later to send them again with a reminder on the appointed day ( Matthew 22:4 , Luke 14:17 ). Arrived at his host’s residence, the guest is received with a kiss ( Luke 7:45 ), his feet are washed ( Luke 7:44 ), and his head is anointed with perfumed oil ( Luke 7:38; cf. Psalms 23:5 ). He himself is dressed in white gala costume ( Ecclesiastes 9:8; see Dress, § 7), for to come to such a feast in one’s everyday garments would be an insult to one’s host (cf. Matthew 22:11 f.). After the ‘chief places’ ( Matthew 23:6 RV [Note: Revised Version.]; AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘uppermost rooms’) on the various couches had been assigned to the principal guests, the hands duly washed, and the blessing said, the meal began. This would consist of several courses, beginning with light appetizing dishes, such as salted fish, pickled olives, etc. During the course of the dinner those whom the host wished to single out for special distinction would receive, as a mark of favour, some dainty portion, such as Samuel had reserved for Saul ( 1 Samuel 9:23 ). These were the messes sent by Joseph to his brethren ( Genesis 43:34 , for a list of the parts of an animal in order of merit, so to say, used for this purpose at a fellahin banquet to-day, see PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , 1905, 123).

At the close of the dinner the hands were again washed, the attendants bringing round the wherewithal, and tables with all sorts of fruit were brought in, over which a second blessing was said. Although wine was served in the first part of the banquet as well, it was at this second stage that the ‘fruit of the vine’ was chiefly enjoyed. The wine-cups were filled from the large mixing bowls ( Jeremiah 35:5 ) in which the wine had been diluted with water and perfumed with aromatic herbs. It was usual, also, to appoint a ‘ruler of the feast’ ( John 2:8 RV [Note: Revised Version.]; cf. Sir 32:1 ) to regulate the manner and the quantity of the drinking, and to enforce penalties in the case of any breach of etiquette. ‘Music and dancing’ ( Luke 15:25 ) and other forms of entertainment, such as the guessing of riddles ( Judges 14:12 ff.), were features of this part of the banquet. For instruction in the ‘minor morals’ of the dinner-table, Jesus ben-Sira has provided the classical passages, Sir 31:12-18; Sir 32:3-12 , expanding the wise counsel of the canonical author of Proverbs 23:1 f.

A. R. S. Kennedy.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Meals'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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